Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Polar Bears, Unicorns and Babies: REACH and the Precautionary Principle

Speech by Margot Wallström, European Commissioner for the Environment Action on Environment and Health, Harvard Medical School, USA 27 April 2004

I have written quite often about the "Precautionary Principle" and the European Union's REACH proposal that would treat chemicals as guilty until proven innocent. (Most recently here.) Most Americans have never heard of REACH, and many of those who are aware of it get their "information" from decidedly unfriendly sources like the American Chemistry Council which is successfully lobbying the U.S. government to oppose the European proposal.

To set the record straight, Margot Wallström, European Commissioner for the Environment Action on Environment and Health gave a speech at Harvard Medical School last week to explain the European Union's proposal.
And this brings me to the unicorn.

In all the debate in the USA about our chemicals legislation, one US official seemed mystified by the precautionary principle. "The Europeans talk about it all the time", he said, "but I have never seen it in the flesh. It seems to hold some strange, mystical properties for Europeans. It is a bit like the unicorn though, as nobody knows if it ever really existed".

We do indeed have a legitimate tool at our disposal in the form of the precautionary principle. Article 174 of the EU Treaty clearly states that action in the environmental field "shall be based on the precautionary principle."

However our use of the precautionary principle is not always understood.

Some of our trading partners seem to think that we apply it at the slightest hint of theoretical risk. I would categorically deny that this is the case.

The precautionary principle is available to decision makers when we are faced with potentially harmful effects on the environment or health, in other words when there are reasonable grounds for concern. In fact precaution equals common sense.

The measures taken on the basis of the precautionary principle are science-based. Of course, it is not our intention that such precautionary measures should necessarily be in place long-term. Once the scientific evidence becomes firmer these measures are re-visited and, if justified, they are withdrawn.

With our approach to Environment and Health we are therefore taking the precautionary road, believing that this is the sensible way forward. In some cases the risk of damage is such that we simply cannot wait until all the science is there.
This last paragraph would send the American advocates of "sound science" running for the hills, screaming about socialism and enviro extremism. But the ultimate question is what we put first: people or profits. This is not an either/or proposition. The goal is to find a way to make a profit in a way that is not harmful to people or the earth.

And why did Ms Wallström venture into hostile territory to give this speech?
In concluding, it would give me great pleasure to be able to say that the EU and the USA are coming together rather than growing apart when it comes to regulating the nexus between environment and health.

As I say, it would give me great pleasure, and that is why I am looking for some evidence of convergence during this visit.
Good luck. Stay away from Washington D.C.